April is World Autism Month. For readers who may not be familiar with autism or autism spectrum disorder the term refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.
When first diagnosed in 1943, autism was considered exceedingly rare. At just 10 years of age, the case of Donald Triplett of Forest, Mississippi was identified in the annals of autism as Case Number 1. Described in the medical article as the discovery of a condition unlike “anything reported so far,” the complex neurological ailment was believed to be very rare, limited to Donald and 10 other children — Cases 2 through 11 — also cited in that first article.
Triplett was noted locally for being oddly distant, uninterested in conversation, and awkward in his movements. He was also well known throughout Scott County and the surrounding counties as having a flawless ability to name musical notes as they were played on a piano and a genius for multiplying numbers in his head. He could also look at a brick building and in seconds, accurately tell the number of bricks in the structure.
We now know, of course, that autism is not a rare disorder. In fact, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a wide-ranging condition that affects 1 in 68 children in the United States and an estimated 70 million children worldwide.
In addition to Apple founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, we now know that luminaries such as Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson and Emily Dickenson all had autism spectrum disorder. As the list suggests, the learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others may not need very much help at all.
Simply put, ASD is a developmental disability that is caused by differences in the brain. Scientists do not know yet exactly what causes these differences for most people with ASD, though some people with ASD share specific genetic conditions. Scientists do suspect that there are multiple causes of ASD, but most remain undiscovered.
There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but they may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately, including autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder.
I would encourage residents to consider lighting their homes and businesses in blue during the month of April. Last year, a record 170 countries participated by lighting special landmarks and buildings blue. Seven of the top 10 tallest towers in the world were lighted with blue lights, including the Freedom Tower in New York City. Every building, business and home with blue lights sends a message of understanding and acceptance to those with autism.
As I have for the past couple of years, I will issue a proclamation designating April as Autism Awareness Month in Sidney to help bring local recognition to ASD. I will likely present the proclamation at the Council meeting on April 2, the date designated by the United Nations as World Autism Awareness Day.
In addition to lighting your home or business blue, there are other ways you can help to increase the understanding and awareness of autism. Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to promoting solutions across the spectrum and throughout the lifespan, has suggested that there several ways to help increase understanding and acceptance.
In addition to lighting your home or business blue on April 2, you should include wearing blue on April 2, using #LightItUpBlue to share photos of your blue lights or of yourself
The writer is the mayor of Sidney.